Friday, July 13, 2007


The starting point for art is our five senses. Yet sight, touch and other senses are no help when it comes to one of art's most powerful subjects.

In his final play, Shakespeare laments, "Our little life is rounded with a sleep." The sleep that rounds us all-- vast, profound and impenetrable-- offers artists no clues. There are no colors or shapes or designs to portray. In fact, the signals we receive from our meager senses usually make the artist look silly.

In Robert Frost's poem Home Burial, a mother wails over her inability to comprehend her dying child:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short,
They might as well not try to go at all
Perhaps for this reason, most artists don't try to go at all, resigning themselves to depicting the detritus left behind:

Artists who do try to conceptualize what lies beyond consciousness usually get about as far as the veil:

Painter Arnold Bocklin employed a similar device-- a distant island-- but the point was the same: no sneak previews allowed.

If art cannot see past the veil, what consolation can it give us?

For me, one of the most successful efforts was George Herriman's lovely dialogue between Krazy Kat and the afterlife.  Krazy Kat used an ouija board to seek the wisdom of the spirits on the other side of the veil.

Herriman's strip was a mad, magical marriage of profundity and whimsy. His light touch enabled him to avoid the pitfalls of his lugubrious predecessors, but he was no less wise.

Any information we might glean from "the other side" will end up as whatever we decide to hear.   Herriman's humanity seems a far better response to our predicament than the grim visions of Bocklin or Brueghel.


Anonymous said...

the bocklin image is gorgeous. thanks, i'll look into him further. love the luminosity, mystery, and the iconic quality.

Jack R said...

Bocklin vacillated about how to depict the afterworld, and he made several versions of this painting. Check them and some knockoffs out here:

See also Boris Karlof posing in front of the most famous version for a movie based on it here:

Mal said...

Great images!

Anonymous said...

I don't know about that. I like the different attempts to depict the unseen. That Bocklin pic is both majestic and a bit creepy, but you can see that his depiction fortells a clean, well-ordered isolation, so you get an insight into his mind. I thought that was the whole idea. Cool image though.

David Apatoff said...

Yeah, that Bocklin was pretty spooky alright. He has half a dozen symbolist paintings that are really unnerving that way.

Anonymous said...


do you have any information about that first illustration, with the man and girl waving to the zombie girl?


David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, the zombie girl painting was by Clyde N. Provonsha, and was from a wonderful book from 1950 entitled Drama Of The Ages by William Henry Branson. The book is a religious treatise filled with wacko paintings by Provonsha and others, explaining what life is going to be like in heaven and how we're all going to be judged. I found it in a used bookstore many years ago.

Anonymous said...

Great - I am going to keep my eyes open and see if I can find one somewhere. Thanks for your help!

Daniel McClellan